Nick Lees: New Edmonton gym will feature an old voice
Jan 10, 2016
“Physical training instructor George Jackson opened his first gym on April 1, 1923, and clients have always exercised to his bellowed commands,” says Ron Assaly, 88, who joined Jackson’s Gym in 1949.
George died in 1971, but not before his workout instructions were recorded. “Three of us still exercise to them in our small gym at the top of the MNP Tower adjoining the Sutton Place Hotel.”
A new gym atop the 31-storey Bell Tower is to be named Jackson’s Gym, says Morley Barr, general manager of Aspen Properties, which in 2011 bought the Edmonton downtown Bell and MNP Towers.
“Some of Edmonton’s most celebrated leaders were members of the gym and we asked Mr. Assaly if we could retain the historic name,” says Barr.
Staff in the nearly 100 companies based in the towers will be offered free use of the 5,500-square-foot gym when it opens this spring. It will feature a studio for group activities, state-of-the-art equipment, showers, a towel service and a steamer to take wrinkles out of jackets and pants.
“I am delighted the gym’s name will be preserved,” says Assaly. “I thought it would die with me.”
British-born Jackson came to Canada in 1904. He farmed in Winnipeg before joining the army in Edmonton and training members of Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians).
Henry (Harry) Hayter, a bush pilot and uncle of former city councillor Ron Hayter, was one of Jackson’s first clients when the sergeant opened his first gym in 1923 in the Insurance Building basement at 102nd Street and 101st Avenue.
Another client was Grant McConachie, destined to become president of Canadian Pacific Airlines and pioneer of highly successful trans-Asia and transatlantic services. He advised CPA pilots to keep fit by attending Jackson’s workouts.
On Jan. 8, 1927, Jackson ran an advertisement in the Journal for three, 30-minute exercise classes on Monday and Thursday nights. The first class cost $3 per month and the other two were $1 each.
Following Jackson’s death, 15 members of the club, including Assaly, PCL founder John Poole, Dr. J.C. Day (father of developer John Day) and Hugh McColl of Southpark Motors each chipped in $1,000 to purchase equipment from the fitness instructor’s estate.
When the gym’s lease later came up for renewal, costs spiralled and the club was threatened with closure. But the late Don Love, a longtime club member and head of Oxford Properties, offered gym space on the 28th floor of his Oxford Tower, later the MNP Tower.
There were 25 club members at the time, most of them leading city doctors, lawyers and businessmen. They thanked Love for keeping the gym going, says Assaly.
Jackson died from cancer at the age of 89. “Everyone thought he would live to be 100,” says Assaly. “But he didn’t believe in doctors. A simple prostate operation would probably have saved his life.”
Retired periodontist Dr. Harold Samuels, 93, a club member for 63 years, still works out to Jackson’s commands three times weekly.
“I use some of the weights Jackson bought in the 1920s,” says a fit, limber Samuels. “They still do the job.”
Along with Assaly and Samuels, lawyer Glen Power, 68, a club member for 40 years, will be given a lifetime membership at the new gym.
The April 1 opening date of Jackson’s original gym will be celebrated in future years, says Barr.
“The story behind the gym is unique,” he says. “It seems fitting the sergeant’s voice should help recall the gym’s origins on its birthday.”